SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was hoping to avoid a lawsuit when he decided to send a letter to The Online Citizen (TOC) editor Terry Xu through his press secretary instead of his lawyers, he told the High Court on Monday (Nov 30).
Testifying on the first day of a week-long hearing for his defamation suit against Mr Xu, he rejected a suggestion by defence lawyer Lim Tean that he was trying to intimidate Mr Xu into removing an article and Facebook post by using the status of his office.
PM Lee said he had exercised "exceptional forbearance" in issuing the letter as he would have sent a formal letter of demand in any other case.
"I would have demanded damages, apologies, undertakings... but I was hoping to avoid another big flare-up and a regurgitation and rehashing of all the issues which had made Singapore so unhappy in 2017," said PM Lee.
He was referring to the issues surrounding the dispute between him and his siblings, Mr Lee Hsien Yang and Dr Lee Wei Ling, over the family's 38 Oxley Road property.
Said PM Lee: "I thought if I do it in this way, perhaps TOC and Mr Xu would get the message and would be prepared, in the national interest, to do the right thing and apologise to me, take down the post and close the matter. Unfortunately, it was not to be."
The case involves a TOC article published in August last year, which referenced a Facebook post by Dr Lee, in which she claimed PM Lee had misled their late father, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, into thinking 38 Oxley Road had been gazetted by the Government.
On Sept 1 last year, PM Lee's press secretary sent Mr Xu a letter asking him to take the article down and issue a "full and unconditional apology". PM Lee initiated legal proceedings after Mr Xu refused to do so.
On Monday, Mr Xu's lawyer, Mr Lim Tean, noted that PM Lee had not previously sent such a letter through his office as the prime minister, and suggested he was trying to intimidate Mr Xu.
"Not at all. If my lawyer acts for me, I think it would be even more intimidating," PM Lee replied.
Mr Lim also noted that PM Lee had publicised the letter to the mainstream media almost immediately after it was sent to Mr Xu, and therefore "did not give (Mr Xu) an opportunity to respond".
But this did not preclude Mr Xu from responding, PM Lee replied.
"Mr Terry Xu had published his article, it was gaining many eyeballs. It had 100,000 views, mostly in those two months, August and September. It was important for me to tell the world that it was untrue and I had asked for it to be taken down," said PM Lee.
Mr Lim said: "I suggest to you, Mr Lee, that your actions indicate a man who was out to intimidate."
To this, PM Lee responded: "I don't solve these problems by intimidating people. I solve them by consulting counsel and exercising my legal rights. Intimidation gets you nowhere. If you intimidate somebody without justification and it goes to court, you will get a black eye."
Mr Lim asked PM Lee if he agreed that by sending the letter via his office, the Prime Minister was telling Mr Xu "I am coming after you as the PM of this country".
Disagreeing, PM Lee said: "I am saying you have defamed me as prime minister. I am the prime minister and I have been defamed... and I want you to take notice."
Untenable for siblings to profit from demolition of 38 Oxley Road
Mr Lim also questioned PM Lee on whether he had foreseen that a conflict would arise between him and his siblings over what to do with the 38 Oxley Road house.
He told the court that it was his client's contention that, despite PM Lee's public statements on his position, the Prime Minister did not actually want the house demolished and had his own motives.
PM Lee said that while it was Mr Lee Kuan Yew's personal preference to have the house demolished, his father had also acknowledged the possibility that the Government might move to prevent this and thus made arrangements to preserve the family's privacy.
He added that even when "putting aside the possibility that we would not agree", it would have been difficult for himself and his siblings to go against public pressure to preserve the house.
Besides that, PM Lee said it was also his position that it would be untenable if the three siblings were to benefit financially from any decision to demolish and redevelop the property. He said he had suggested to his siblings that any proceeds from such a decision should be donated to a suitable charity.
Mr Lim then asked if PM Lee had foreseen a disagreement with his siblings over whether to demolish the house.
PM Lee replied: "I did not foresee that possibility; I said putting it aside. Please don't paraphrase me inaccurately."
He added that it was "not conscious" on his mind at the time but he could not have ruled out such a conflict.
Mr Lim said: "Until today, your siblings are insistent on knocking (the house) down, but we are hearing from you that, aside from what the Government might do, you had doubts, you had hesitations."
PM Lee responded that he had doubts about whether demolition would be possible as there was public pressure and the question of what the Government might decide to do.